By Dr. Jack Maxwell

Over the last 25 years, charter schools have expanded to nearly every state. Currently, there are more than 2.8 million students in charter schools — with charter schools growing in number from 2,000 to 7,000 from 2000-2016 (NCES). As of 2018-2019, charter schools serve 17 percent of all students enrolled in Shelby County Schools. By definition, charters are quasi-independent schools that are publicly funded and are operated, to a varying degree, outside of direct control of the district in which they exist. They have a great deal of autonomy concerning their curriculum, instruction, and management. Parents make a personal choice to send their children to charters rather than to their district public schools. Charters are run by an array of for profit, nonprofit, and university entities. 

As reported in Chalkbeat (4/4/19), currently there are 54 Shelby County charter schools with 16,000 students. However, the number of applications for opening new charter schools has declined recently to only 8 for the 2020 school year with few seeking to open in areas identified as most needed by SCS. Further, Shelby County has 29 Achievement School District schools that are state endorsed charters and that serve about 5 percent of Shelby County students. ASD schools have struggled throughout their existence, which began in the 2012-2013 school year. A report by the Tennessee Research Alliance concluded that ASD has not produced significant gains in any academic subject area and suffer from serious leadership issues, including having 4 different leaders in its short six-year existence. 

Getting back to more traditional charters, while there has been plenty of anecdotal talk about charters academic superiority over public schools, the reality is that research does not support this claim. In fact, NCES found in 2017 that while charters enrollment increased dramatically, there is no evidence they outperform public schools on national achievement tests. According to NPE: Toolkit, the body of research evidence finds that charters do no better academically and often do worse than public schools. They do not produce students who perform better academically in the long-term. Further, “high performing” charters are often an illusion because they do not enroll equal numbers of minority students, students with disabilities, or those with other special needs.

Who are attending these charters? A study by the New Jersey Education Association found that charters are having an overall negative effect on local schools in Newark. Charters skim off the better prepared students and the activist parents while not providing better educational results. Public schools on the other hand are left to educate English as a Second Language, severely handicapped, and the highest need students with increasingly smaller budgets as charters drain off funding. Yet even with these significant challenges, studies repeatedly show public schools perform at least equal to charter schools if not better. 

As previously stated, charter schools are tax-payer funded but exist outside the normal strictures of public school governance. While the concept of charters is in vogue, the reality of their performance versus public schools is in doubt. Additionally, they often lack public school’s acceptance of diversity whether it concerns race, culture, religion, language, or other demographic factors. A CREDO study’s lead author states, “We’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters…That’s a red flag.” 

Despite these facts, parents are inundated with charter schools’ glossy pamphlets and hard pitch sales all based on dubious claims. Many charters spend exorbitant amounts of money recruiting students and the $12,000 in state and federal funding that follows each student. This taxpayer money is then used to support charters existence, pay their executives/CEO, and for some, to turn a profit.  

All of this said, please keep in mind that students in Shelby County have other quality choices. Remember that on average, SCS public schools outperform area charter schools. Beyond this, SCS offers 40+ optional schools with a variety of high-quality programs that overall not only outperform charters and Tennessee’s public schools, but also outperform public schools academically at the national level!

As an educator, my advice to parents is to do your due diligence. Research the schools you are considering for your children. Do a walk through while classes are in session. Ask probing questions and, most importantly, make sure you know the facts about the school you choose. Do not be fooled by the hype. Glossy pamphlets are pretty but results are what matter when preparing for your children’s future. In this way, you can be sure you are making the best educational choices for your children.

Dr. Jack Maxwell is an educator with over 30 years of teaching experience and a freelance writer. Please forward questions or comments to:   

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